The readings for our Eucharistic celebration on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time offer a clear suggestion which is as great as it is unusual. It is the call to serve each other and to give our life in ransom for many.
Unless we were ever held for ransom, or we were those who had to pay it, we could not fully appreciate the weight of this call. Jesus, the Son of Man, came to serve and to give his life in ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28)
18 years ago, one of our PIME priests was captured by Muslim rebels on the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, and went through the ordeal of many months of captivity and depravations before being freed. Several times he was at the brink of despair. Countless times he prepared himself for execution.
His harrowing experience is similar to those of many hostages held for ransom, under horrific conditions, by rogue groups or jihadists in troubled parts of this world. The depravations and the constant prospect of being suddenly executed can drive many hostages to attempting suicide.
By contrast, perhaps we should stop for a moment and reflect on how relatively comfortable and relatively safe our life really is. Many of the things we do, on a given day, are for ourselves and for our loved ones. Being held hostage would remove all that and plunge one into total dejection.
This is precisely the situation I witnessed in my mission in Northern Thailand when I was there almost forty years ago. I saw countless people held hostage to ignorance, sickness, exploitation, helplessness before the tragedies of life, and most of all, living in constant terror of what the evil spirits and cruel fate had in store for them.
Hence, today, as we realize, perhaps with a degree of embarrassment, that we have taken for granted our knowledge of a most loving, most merciful God, along with our faith, Christian fellowship, the Sacraments, and all the countless blessings we share, we must think about those who live without the soothing light of the Christian faith.
The Letter to the Hebrews gives us what I consider the most heartening reason for feeling blessed and privileged: for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. (Hebrews 4:15-16)
We should recall the most frightening situation in which we found ourselves or in which, we fear, we might find ourselves in the near future. Jesus is fully able to sympathize with our weaknesses in such a situation, too. Indeed, we are blessed and privileged even at that juncture.
When Jesus asked James and John if they were ready to drink from the cup that mingled his blood to theirs and to be plunged into a baptism similar to the baptism of his passion and death, they quickly answered ”yes” because they were thinking of honors, prestige and status. Hence, Jesus had to clarify the unsavory conditions to be met before any honor, prestige and status would be granted by the Father in heaven. In union with him, they had to endure considerable sufferings, serve humbly and shed their blood in ransom for many.
The call to serve and to give our life in ransom for many in union with Christ, is the same one to which James and John were called and that, eventually, embraced. This is the call that all Apostles embraced after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday.
The liturgical rubrics demand that a priest wears red vestments on the feast of an Apostle or martyr. There are two sentences, both from St. Paul, that encapsulate the plunging of ourselves into “a baptism” of passion and death and the pouring of our blood mingled with that of Christ, down to the last drop.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church. (Colossians 1:24)
For I am already being poured like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. (2 Timothy 4:6)
This call to serve humbly and to give one’s life in ransom for many is the deeper meaning of “doing Eucharist,” not only on Sunday, here in church, but anytime we are called by Christ Jesus to share in the suffering of other members of his Body and to pour out our blood, in all likelihood, only symbolically, down to the last drop of our energies and goodwill to assist some of our brothers and sisters in their needs.
However, let us be frank and level with each other: at this moment of our life we are not ready to drink the cup that Jesus, James, John, Paul and all the other Apostles drank. We cannot yet be baptized with the baptism with which they were baptized.
Here is, therefore, a prayer that I made up and that might be of help as we strive to become “Eucharistic people.”
When we see the priest drink from the chalice, we should say something along these lines: “Dear Lord Jesus, I need a massive infusion of your Holy Spirit to ready me to pour out my blood for all those people whom I am called to serve, starting with those in my family. Amen.”
And, as we walk up the main aisle to receive the Lord in Holy Communion, we should say something along these lines: “Dear Lord Jesus, I approach the Table of your Body and Blood with much trepidation; fill my heart with your love so that I may be always ready to have my body broken in joyful service of others the way yours was broken on the cross. Amen.”
If, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we embrace fully our call to serve and to give our life in ransom for many, endless honors, prestige and status will be assured for us in heaven.